Earlier this week, The DePaulia interviewed Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. The conversation included topics from mental health to rumors of a possible 2019 mayoral run for the three-term sheriff. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
The DePaulia: When people think of a sheriff, they think of Andy Griffith. Tell me, what does a sheriff do in the second-largest county in America in the 21st century?
Tom Dart: I think the traditional view of sheriff is definitely no longer what the tides call for, but it’s also certainly no longer functional to be quite honest with you. It requires you to be more than just a law enforcement officer. If that’s all you’re doing, then you did not get the memo that we can’t arrest our way out of or incarcerate away these problems. We have to be the folks that are (aware) of the changes not just in the criminal justice system, but also in social justice.
Side note: After answering the question, Dart joked that the Andy Griffith Show is one of his favorites and that he had watched a couple episodes with his children the previous night.
DP: Mental health is one of your top issues. Talk a little about the role mental health plays in the jails and how you’re trying to reform it.
TD: The scary reality is that we have become the mental health system for the region … We’re the largest mental hospital in the county, in the state, and we very well might be the largest mental health in the country. And that in it of itself should be enough of a statement to say that we be embarrassed that our society becomes so negligent that we don’t see anything wrong with jails and prisons being the health services for those citizens.
The events that have brought people into our custody are all the logical consequences of us not funding mental health services for decades. The crimes almost across the board are not serious, violent crimes; they’re crimes of survival on the street when you don’t have access to any services of support. So we’ve been trying to spread the word. (And) what I decided was that if they were going to make me be the largest mental health provider, I’m going to be the best mental health provider.
DP: Sexual assault is a big issue on college campuses. Could you speak to some of the efforts your office is doing on that issue?
TD: I have three people who are not just experts in sexual assault, the victims and the like, but they are also experts in the law and the requirements of universities. So we put together a series of training sessions for colleges and universities. We did an anonymous survey of colleges and universities in Illinois and we had a huge participation rate.
So the issue in regards to universities, they’ve made it clear to them that they’re there to help. In the instances where there are questions of either for advice or help in the prosecution of a case, they need our assistance.
I used to be a prosecutor years ago and I can tell you that sexual assaults always were very, very difficult cases. And they’re even more so now, particularly on a college campus because you have issues of consent and all that gets confused by some of the administrators. So the best we can do is try to educate folks as well as possible and be in assistance to them.
DP: There’s a lot of mistrust between law enforcement and different communities. As the highest ranking law enforcement official in the county, what are some ways you think that trust can be rebuilt?
TD: I think the one thing that needs to be understood about it is that it’s not going to be quick. Because that’s where it is now not just because of Laquan McDonald’s shooting. There’s been years of distrust, years of concerns. You’ve had a lot of incidents that have occurred over decades. The way it’s going to occur is initiating policies of engagement ,and true engagement. That means you go into communities and it can’t be just the facade of community policing; it’s got to be true community policing where you have the community interacting in a substantive way with law enforcement about their needs and concerns.
Ninety percent of my police department now has crisis intervention training, which teaches you about mental illness, signs of it, ways to deescalate situations, so those types of trainings go a long way to making for a more harmonious interaction on the street too. So there’s a handful of training things, but I think everybody needs to be aware that this is going to take some time. It’s going to have to be substantive changes and interactions with the community and it’s always through that that trust can begin.
DP: Have you been collaborating with other agencies like the state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department?
TD: We do a lot of that now and we’ve always collaborated in some way, shape or form with entities such as the state’s attorney’s office. At the end of the day, we have to get them to approve charges for our cases. So there’s the reactive areas we work with them on, as far as cases that get made. And there’s proactive ways, such as in sex trafficking cases, things along those lines. With other police departments, we interact with them all the time. So, once again, it’s reactive, where they’re asking for our assistance. And there’s other ones where, departments — oh God, unfortunately, too many to enumerate — where I get called in to assist them in a myriad of issues, some as straightforward as literally taking over their department. There are other ones where they ask me to handle the patrol part of their function or their detective work. And then in the City of Chicago, we just collaborated with them in districts where there’s more violence than others. We just try to help. We put more police officers in those areas from the sheriff’s department in an effort to reduce some of the crime issues they’re experiencing. So we do collaborate a lot and have been collaborating more with the City of Chicago I’d say in the last nine months than ever before. I’ve always been working in the city, but it’s more interactive now with their upper level folks. Before, we didn’t have much of a relationship.
DP: Do you think this is because of new leadership in the police department post-Garry McCarthy?
TD: Yeah, that’s definitely a part of it.
DP: What’s your relationship like with the mayor?
TD: We don’t talk. I haven’t spoken to him in six years.
TD: Yeah, it’s sort of strange, but I’m outrageously busy, so I’m not going to lose a whole lot of sleep over that. It’s just strange because these other towns in the county, their mayors have me on speed dial. They call me all the time about you name it. I’m always happy to work with them and help them. So for whatever reason, he hasn’t called me. I offered to help years ago. So I can’t get in anyone’s head besides my own. So I don’t know why people do what they do.
DP: Well, there have been some rumblings about you possibly running for mayor in 2019. Any truth to that?
TD: I tell people this: it was something I was adamantly opposed to four or five years ago. I have a really young family that I’m really connected to and I like it that way. They’ve gotten a little bit older, but I still don’t know if the requirements of being mayor would fit with my family. And the other part of it too is that I really love my job; I enjoy what I do. I feel rather confident saying that we’re on the cutting edge of all the changes going on in law enforcement around the country. It’d be one thing if I were a state legislator or something questioning how much I’m really impacting things. But we really are; when it comes to the mentally ill in prisons and jails, we’re the leading entity in the country. When it comes to people who are incarcerated because they’re poor, which we have an abundance of, we’re leading that effort in the country too. So it will always be a factor I look at, that I feel very vital where I’m at now, I enjoy what I’m doing.
I won’t rule it out categorically like I have in the past, but I am a long way from saying this is my dream come true. I could leave political office tomorrow and be a very happy camper. A lot of these people in politics, for whatever reason, they’re defined by their job and are always trying to get to the next job. I’m always shaking my heading say ‘well, why don’t you focus on the one you have now?’ and actually have something objective that you can say that you did there before you jump to the next one. Some of these fools, honest to God, I can’t get them, I really can’t.
DP: Any names?
TD: Oh, take your pick. I mean, honest to God, I’m always blown away by it. I’m like ‘you gotta be kidding me!’ You haven’t even done anything in the job you have right now, and now you want to be to be mayor or governor? C’mon! But some of these people, it’s all a game of getting to the next title. What they’re going to do with it, they could care less.
DP: Regardless of any mayoral speculation, do you plan to run for reelection as sheriff?
TD: Barring any family issue, absolutely.
DP: You’re coming to DePaul in a few weeks. What are you planning to discuss?
TD: I don’t know. To be honest with you, I don’t have a particular topic. I think what I would probably focus most on would be just the need for people to find in their hearts to get involved, not just with government, but in the issues of the day.
DP: What are some ways students can get involved?
TD: There are loads of opportunities in my office to volunteer; not necessarily becoming a county correctional officer, I’m talking about being engaged and helping with social work. So there’s a load of different opportunity in that respect. On a local level, I encourage some of the younger folks to frankly get off their phones and to run for office, get involved on that type of level. Don’t just sit there and feel that you engaged in making this a better world because you tweeted something out. No. Put your name out there, put your time and energy out there to try to actually obtain an office where you did it for the right reasons to try and do some amazing things.
Dart will appear at DePaul on May 24. The event will take place from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. in the Schmitt Academic Center, room 254.